Friday, September 9, 2016

Ready Pilgrim One

The title of my khutbah today is “Ready Pilgrim One”. This khutbah will be about hajj. However, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have never been on hajj. I’ve never gone on umrah. My knowledge about the pilgrimage is from second hand accounts and books, and perhaps even more importantly my spiritual imagination. I hope that in our discussion afterwards people who have actually been on hajj can offer a more heart-felt perspective.

 The title of my khutbah is derived from a popular fiction book, “Ready Player One”, which my sons had suggested I read because of the many 1980s references in the book. And yes, I did understand all these obscure references because that was the time of my adolescence and young adulthood. In a nutshell, the book is set in the near future, in a dystopian world where an unstable climate has wrecked catastrophic social change but where the best and brightest choose to spend all their time in an enormous virtual reality universe. This computer generated world is addictive, and when you add in a treasure hunt, people spend all their time tracking clues in a virtual galaxy. There is a brain drain. People would rather play characters in a fantasy world and pursue treasures rather than solve the tough problems of real world challenges. “Ready Player One” is the last message players see on their screen in the real world as they enter into the virtual world, and this message is a reference to the 1980s video arcade games (this message appearing after you had deposited your quarter into the machine but before the game started).

As I was reading the book, it reminded me of 1) how people choose to spend their leisure time and 2) how leisure time activities impact our economy, technological focus, and culture. I can think of no greater impact on our current culture than the influence of the smart phone and the connection to the internet. In our own time, the video game industry is a multi-billion dollar, global industry. Role playing games are particularly attractive to people. Unlike most games, such as chess or Monopoly, where the purpose is just to ‘win’, role playing games offer a sense of purpose by fulfilling the ‘destiny’ of a character. These virtual characters are often tailor-made by individual players, and represent a new opportunity to redefine the self.  Multi-player games offer the additional feature of fulfilling one’s individual purpose in the context of a group. In the modern era when many people lack a sense of connection to their real community, the virtual world offers belonging to a group as part of one’s purpose or destiny.

So how does any of this relate to hajj? In the dystopian novel, the main character Wade Watts is thinking about the old, role playing game Dungeons & Dragons. He says,

“In a way, those old role-playing games had been the first virtual-reality simulations, created long before computers were powerful enough to do the job. In those days, if you wanted to escape to another world, you had to create it yourself using your brain, some paper, pencils, dice, and a few rule books.” p 66 Ready Player One

I would argue that before computers did virtual reality simulations, and before geeks played Dungeons & Dragons, mankind’s first virtual-reality simulations were religious pilgrimages. A religious pilgrimage can only be undertaken by people who are able to step away from the demands of their day-to-day life in order to fulfill a purpose. These pilgrimages involve traveling to a new location with companions. Everyone is asked to re-enact certain rituals, often taking actions which are reminiscent of a significant religious figure. In the case of hajj, pilgrims are asked to re-enact  events from the lives of Hajar and Ibrahim, as well as visit sites where Prophet Muhammad and his companions lived.

Two important aspects of video games and pilgrimages are the narrative and the actual playing/enactment. The narrative can be studied at length, long before the actual playing occurs. In fact, as Muslims, we study the narrative all our lives to prepare for hajj. We try to embody and implement the values which the narrative (as told in the Qur’an, hadith, and sunnah) impart to us. In video games there are different levels which correspond to skill sets and understanding of the game. As the player improves her skills, she advances in levels and encounters greater challenges. The same might be said of the Muslim believer, as she improves her religious knowledge and ethical practice, she will be confronted with greater moral and ethical challenges.

In  preparation for hajj, all pilgrims must make out a will, pay their debts, and make amends to friends and family. Time must be taken off work and travel plans established. This process is often likened to preparing for death, but it is also said that completion of hajj represents a rebirth or a new start. At the hajj, where old sins are forgiven, the pilgrim has an opportunity to redefine herself.
Once we come to the actual hajj, instead of virtual reality visors and haptic gloves, pilgrims wrap themselves in two pieces of plain white cloth and enter an ocean of similar white-shrouded people. It has been described as the Day of Judgment - no one can be recognized. Name, race, and social status are erased in a flood of white ihrams. Ali Shariati calls this “…a human show of Allah’s unity” (p 10, Hajj) Are you ready Pilgrim One? Labaika, Allahumma labaika! From here on out there are proscribed rituals, duas, and practice. Most of these steps are referred to only vaguely in the Quran. The precise number of prayers, circumambulation around the Kaaba, thrown stones, etc follows an oral tradition  which a tour guide will transmit to you, inshallah.

According to Muslim canon, Mecca was settled by Hajar and Ishmael, her son by Ibrahim. Hajar is not named in the Quran, but the Quran records Ibrahim’s speech in 14:37

“Our Lord, I have settled some of my children in a valley without crops near Your sacred House, our Lord, that they may keep up prayer: so make the hearts of some people fond of them, and provide them with fruits, that they may be grateful.”

Ibrahim returned to help Ishmael build the Kaaba.  The Quran says,

“And mention when We placed Abraham in the place of the House that you ascribe nothing as partners with Me and purify My House for the ones who circumambulate it and for the ones who are standing up and the ones who bow down and the ones who prostrate themselves. Announce to humanity the pilgrimage to Mecca. They will approach you on foot and on every thin camel. They will approach from every deep ravine that they may bear witness to what profits them and remember the Name of God on known days over whatever He has provided them from flocks of animals. Then eat of it and feed the ones who are in misery and the poor. After that let them finish their ritual uncleanliness and live up to their vows and circumambulate the Ancient House. That is what has been commanded!” 22:26-30

The Kaaba was a center of monotheistic worship and pilgrimage, but over the years the polytheistic pagans co-opted the site. Prophet Mohammad and his followers restored monotheistic worship and pilgrimage to Mecca. According to the Quran,

“And the announcement from God and His Messenger to humanity on the day of the greater pilgrimage to Mecca is that God is free from the ones who are polytheists and so is His Messenger….” 9:3

How the hajj rituals were developed and when they were developed is shrouded in mystery.

Hajar’s story primarily comes to us through the bible and local oral traditions. In some versions she is the abject Ethiopian slave girl of Sara, Ibrahim’s wife, who Sara ‘loans’ to her husband to produce an heir. In other versions Hajar is an Egyptian princess who sees the true worth of Abraham and willingly joins his household. There is no way to ‘prove’ which narrative is true, and the Quran is silent on the status of Hajar. We do know that during the sa’y portion of hajj (walking between the mountains of Safa and Marwa), pilgrims are told they embody Hajar’s search for water for herself and her child. At this stage in the narrative, Hajar is a single mother, abandoned by the father of her child. She has fallen through the safety net of custom, culture and law and must fend for herself and her child in the wilderness. She has only her thirst, her child, her determination and her faith in God. Why does God want us to remember lonely, abandoned Hajar?

The Quran says
“Truly Safa and Marwa are among the waymarks of God; so whoever makes the pilgrimage to Mecca to the House or visits the Kabah, then there is no blame on him that he walks quickly between the two; and whoever volunteers good, then truly God is One Who is Responsive, Knowing.” 2:158


The other religious figure we remember at hajj and Eid Al-Adha is Prophet Ibrahim. Unlike Hajar, there are many references to Ibrahim throughout the Quran. He is often portrayed as  rebellious monotheist in confrontation with his father and his community (2:258, 6:76-82, 9:114, 21:51-70), but he is also a generous host (11 69-74, 15:51-60), a critical thinker (6:76-79), has doubts about God’s plan for him (2:260), and asks forgiveness for his father (14:41) and the people of Lot (11:74) .The Quran says, “Truly Ibrahim was forbearing, sympathetic, one who turns in repentance.”(11:75). At the Kaaba one can see Ibrahim’s footprints as well as the black stone he and Ishmael used to build the Kaaba. The end of hajj culminates in the sacrifice of sheep in lieu of his child,

“So We gave him the good tidings of a forbearing boy. And when he reached maturity endeavoring with him, he said: O my son! Truly I see while slumbering that I am sacrificing you. So look on what you have considered? He said: O my father! Accomplish whatever you are commanded. You shall find me, if God willed, of the ones who remain steadfast. Then when they had both submitted themselves and he had flung him on his brow We cried out to him: O Abraham! Surely you have established the dream as true. Thus truly We give recompense to the ones who are doers of good. Truly that was certainly a clear trial. And then We took ransom for him with a sublime slaughter and We left for him a good name with the later ones: Peace be upon Abraham!” 37: 101-108

Ibrahim is a man wrestling with his conscience and his sense of duty. He loves his son and he loves God, but he feels he is being put into a no-win situation. The Quran reminds us “It is not their meat, nor their blood that reach Allah. It is your piety that reaches Him.” (22: 37) If this is the case, then why does God want us to remember dutiful, conflicted Ibrahim?

The Quran encourages all Muslims to go on hajj and re-enact the steps of religious ancestors. The Quran states:

“Truly God loves the ones who are doers of good. And fulfill the pilgrimage to Mecca and the visit for God..” 2: 196

“…and to God is a duty on humanity of pilgrimage to the House in Mecca for whomever is able to travel the way to it…”3:97

Muslims make hajj to please God, but as with prayer, the benefit is to their own selves. The rituals of hajj have changed through the centuries, I am certain we do not make hajj the same way Prophet Ibrahim or Prophet Muhammad made their hajj, but we also make hajj different from our grandparents and even our parent. Technological advances, such as safe air travel, have made the pilgrimage to Mecca a very different experience and allowed millions more people to attend. Some customs, such as hunting in the vicinity of the haram (5:1-2, 5:94-96) have become obsolete. Hajj will continue to change as human beings change. Perhaps one day people will make a ‘virtual’ hajj with virtual reality visors and haptic gloves. I don’t know, but however we change pilgrimage I imagine we will try to retain the core elements: purpose, re-creation of the self, remembrance of the past and humility for the future.

Before I close, I would also like to add another perspective on pilgrimage that I recently read in “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce. Harold sets out on a walking pilgrimage across England, meeting various people along his path. His isn’t a religious pilgrimage, but it is concerned with spiritual healing.

"He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passer-by, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went. He had neglected so many things, that he owed this small piece of generosity to Queenie and the past."
- The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, p 107

My closing du’a is a portion of a much longer du’a that Ibrahim made 14:40-41;  “My Lord! Make me one who performs the formal prayer and from my offspring also. Our Lord! Receive my supplication. Our Lord! Forgive me and the ones who are my parents and the ones who believe on the Day the reckoning arises.” Amen.

“Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline, 2011 Crown Publishers, New York
“Hajj” by Ali Shariati, translated by Ali Behzadnia and Najla Denny, 1993 Evecina Cultural & Educational Foundation, 3rd edition
“The Sublime Quran” translation by Laleh Bakhtiar, 2009, 6th edition
“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce, 2012 Doubleday, London